No matter the color, leaves are gold for your garden

autumn leaves
Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

No matter what color they are, autumn leaves are like gold for your garden.

You can use them in so many ways, so don’t rake them to the curb. In fact, if you see bags of leaves set out to the curb, take them home! A friend gave me five big bags of leaves last year and I used the last of them about a month ago. I’m ready for more!

The two main ways I use leaves is as mulch and in compost.


Use chopped up leaves around your perennials now to help make sure the roots don’t heave up out of the ground if we get periods of freezing and thawing over the winter. That’s especially important in years when we don’t have much snow cover.

Using mulch around your plants is a great way to keep weeds down, too. You may want to lay down a layer of newspaper first, then spread out your chopped leaves. Bonus: In a dry summer, mulch helps to keep moisture in the soil.

If you have several garden beds, you’ll be amazed and how many barrels of chopped leaves you need to cover everything. You may want to add more leaves in the spring, too, so, if you have room, store some leaves over the winter.

You can also use chopped or whole leaves to cover paths. Last fall, I used about five inches of whole leaves on a narrow path I have. In the spring, I added more leaves that I had saved. Those leaves broke down and I have to add more again this autumn.


compost bins
At right is a closed compost bin that helps to keep rodents out. At left is a compost bin made of pallets. It would be easy for rodents to get at kitchen scraps in a bin like that or in an open compost pile. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Compost is a great way to improve your soil. It helps to break up heavy clay soil. Compost also enables the soil to better retain nutrients, moisture and air, making the soil healthier for plants.

If you want to get compost faster, you can speed up your compost pile by balancing the carbon and nitrogen. The microbes that break down your plant material thrive best in an environment that has a ratio of about 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. If you keep your plant material close to that ratio, the material will break down faster.

Dead leaves are high in carbon. Kitchen scraps are high in nitrogen. So ideally, you would have 30 times more leaves (measured by volume) than kitchen scraps in your compost pile.

That’s a lot of leaves!

If you have a large, open compost pile, it may be easy to keep your materials close to that ideal ratio. However, using kitchen scraps in an open pile might attract rodents.

If you’re concerned about rodents, using a closed compost bin is better. However, these tend to be smaller, and you may not be able to fit enough leaves in your bin to keep your material at ideal levels. Don’t worry; your plant material will still break down. It may just take a little longer.

If you have room, store some leaves and layer them into your compost bin throughout the spring and summer to keep your compost breaking down quickly.

It’s okay to let your municipality compost for you

I like composting, but if you don’t have room to compost or if you just don’t want to compost, it’s okay to let your municipality do the composting for you. Both ways are good for the environment.

What’s not good for the environment is sending organic matter to landfills, according to The Climate Friendly Gardener: A Guide to Combating Global Warming from the Ground Up, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

When you compost at home, you do produce some global warming gases, but studies indicate that the best practices for creating and using compost have a smaller climate impact than landfills. That’s because efficient home composting takes place aerobically (that is, in the presence of oxygen), which minimizes the formation of methane.

By contrast, landfills lack oxygen circulation, so organic materials are broken down primarily by bacteria that thrive in the absence of oxygen and produce methane. Methane is a heat-trapping gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to The Climate Friendly Gardener.

Yard trimmings and food waste together make up about one-quarter of this country’s municipal solid waste. Worldwide, methane produced in landfills and other solid waste disposal sites represents about 3 to 4 percent of all human-caused heat-trapping gases.

Composting at home is much better than allowing leaves to end up in a landfill.

And how does home composting compare to composting done by municipalities?

Transporting wastes to centralized facilities by truck produces carbon dioxide that could be avoided by composting at home, but these emissions are small relative to those averted in the process, according to The Climate Friendly Gardener. And because conditions at centralized facilities are optimal, they may come closer to eliminating methane emissions than the average home composting pile or bin.

If your municipality picks up your leaves, find out whether those leaves get composted or go to a landfill. Encourage your local government to compost.


14 Comments on “No matter the color, leaves are gold for your garden

  1. Worx has a mulcher that reduces huge piles of leaves to a bag or two of shredded mulch. I use it to mulch my garden. Way better than dragging tarps full of leaves out of my backyard.

  2. If you chop up the leaves first, that plant material can break down and eventually become part of the soil. If you use whole leaves, it takes way longer for them to break down. Plus, I don’t think it looks as nice.

  3. Thanks for the timely article about using leaves. It’s probably too late for this year, but I have an idea for a future article. The most recent issue of Fine Gardening has a short piece about bulb planters. Briefly, it shows how to plant spring bulbs in pots to put in decorative containers when the bulbs begin to show green tips. The trick to it is to store them outside in mulch till temps begin to warm in spring. Of course. I buried mine in mulch and leaves. The article recommended sprinkling an animal deterrent like Plantskyd(?) on top, but I cut circles of aluminum screening to put on each pot & attached with clothespins. Lowe’s had spring bulbs marked down so I picked up some tulip, hyacinth and daffodil bulbs for my experiment. I’ll let you know how it turns out in spring.

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